Improving Your Business What Customers Want

The Right Way to do Customer Surveys

Customers (Photo credit: Vinqui)

Carriers are always being advised to find out what their customers really want and one of the best tools to do that is a well-designed survey. I use the term well-designed, because you can’t put any credence into the results of a survey that is not done correctly. I see many surveys done incorrectly, with the results being that a company will act on the results of a survey that may not reflect what customers really want. There are a number of steps that must be taken to get an accurate and statistically representative survey.

Adequate sample size. You must complete an adequate number of surveys to get the results you want. Most business surveys are designed to get results that are 95% accurate, plus or minus 5%. What this means that if you were to give that same survey to every customer you would expect the same results within that range of accuracy. Most businesses and political surveys find that to be accurate enough.

There are several online websites available that will calculate the size of the sample needed. Most people find the number of needed samples surprising. To get the 95% accuracy, if you have 1,000 customers you need to complete 278 surveys. If you have 5,000 customers you need to survey 357 of them, and with 20,000 customers it’s 377 surveys needed.

I often see companies conduct surveys that produce far fewer completed surveys than these sample numbers. Such surveys are valid, but the amount of accuracy is not as trustworthy. For example, if you have 5,000 customers and you complete only 100 surveys, the results could still represent a 95% accuracy, but only within a range of plus or minus 10%. That doesn’t sound a lot less accurate, but it means that there is almost a one in five chance that the results do not reflect your whole customer base.

Random. For a survey to be valid the people surveyed must be selected at random. If you are surveying your own customers it’s easy not to be random. For example, if you send out a survey in your bills, the results you get back are not random. They are biased by the fact that people who either like or dislike what you asked about are the most likely to respond while people who feel neutral about the topic are likelier not to. The only really reliable way to get a random sample is to call people. And even then you have to choose the numbers randomly.

Calling has several issues. You must consider the Do Not Call lists that the federal government has established for people to opt out of getting solicitation calls. You are allowed under these rules to call your own existing customers, but you are not allowed to call potential customers who are on the Do Not Call list.

Second, you need to deal with cell phone numbers since many customers no longer have landlines. To get an adequate sample you need to somehow call people with both types of phones. You are not legally allowed to make solicitation calls to a cell phone number unless the person has given you permission to do so. Hopefully you will have customer records that provide a contact number to call for each customer, and any customer who has given you their number has given you permission to call them even if it is a cell phone number.

Non-biased. The questions you ask must be unbiased, which means that they are not worded in such a way as to elicit a certain response. This is why so many surveys you take seem to be somewhat bland, because the questions are written without flowery adjectives.

Interpreting the Results. Companies often misinterpret the results of a survey. The 95% accuracy that is the goal of the survey only applies to the primary questions you ask. For example, if you gave a valid survey to all of your customers and asked a question such as if they would be interested in buying cellular service from you, then the response to that question would be 95% accurate. However, companies often try to interpret a survey question at a deeper level. For example, they might look at the results of the same question for men versus women respondents and say that one group is more likely to feel a certain way than another.

And you can’t make those kinds of interpretations with any accuracy. In this example the survey is an accurate representation of how all customers feel because you sampled enough customers to get a statistically valid result. However, if half of the people you surveyed were women, then your survey of women is only half as big as the overall survey, and correspondingly less reliable. In this example it wouldn’t be a lot more unreliable, but if you try to really subdivide the sample population the results become nearly worthless. For instance, if you try to analyze the results by various age groups of ten years each you will find that you can’t rely on the results at all.

Survey fatigue. Another common problem is survey fatigue where a survey is so long that a lot of people hang up in the middle of it. It’s important to try to keep a survey under five minutes or this will happen a lot.

Summary. If you are going to spend the time and money to do a survey then you should spend the extra effort to do it right. Make sure your sample size is adequate. Make sure the survey is given randomly. Make sure the questions are unbiased. And keep it short.

And as a reminder, CCG has done hundreds of surveys, so one way to make sure it’s done right is to engage us. We can help at every level from helping write the questions setting sample sizes or even making the calls.

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